Feb 282003

In breaking Great White news, missing and presumably charred guitarist Ty Longley turns out to have starred in several adult entertainments under the nom de porn of “Tybo.” There are of course excellent reasons for choosing an alias for one’s pornographic career, but really, what a waste: blessed with the Christian name of Ty Longley, how could the man have improved on the original? (Link from Tha Weissblog by way of Colby Cosh.)

Feb 262003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading

The vehicle of a poem is the figure that carries the weight of the composition. The tenor is the subject to which the vehicle refers. (These useful terms come from I.A. Richards, author of Practical Criticism, which has the peculiar distinction of being the funniest work of literary criticism ever written.) Usually when two critics disagree about the meaning of the poem, one is reading at the level of the tenor, the other at the level of the vehicle. Great poetry succeeds at both levels. Consider J.V. Cunningham’s To the Reader:

Time will assuage.
Time’s verses bury
Margin and page
In commentary,

For gloss demands
A gloss annexed
Till busy hands
Blot out the text,

And all’s coherent.
Search in this gloss
No text inherent:
The text was loss.

The gain is gloss.

The vehicle here is scholarship, and how readily a work can be buried in the footnotes. On this level the poem is witty but not very profound. Yet there is the strange first line: Time will assuage — what exactly? What time always assuages: experience. What sort of experience? The answer is in the second-to-last-line, which refers to the text not as “lost,” as you might expect from the vehicle, but as “loss,” which is quite different. Cunningham is speaking of unhappy experience — but in general, rather than mourning some particular loss. The visceral quality of the experience necessarily diminishes as time passes. What is gained is “gloss” — only from a distance can you evaluate the experience and learn from it. The loss is real, but so is the gain, which may be sufficient compensation. This is the tenor.

To the Reader is remarkable in that every detail functions on both levels; most poems are sloppier. The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., is a more typical example. (It’s too long to reprint here, but go read it, it’s worth your time.) As Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, pointed out a while ago, at the level of the tenor the poem deals with the implosion of American Protestantism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The shay’s career, like Protestantism’s collapse, begins with the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Musil writes: “In America, the New England Protestants had their own interpretation of the earthquake: God was showing the world that what the world thought was ‘Godly’ just didn’t measure up to divine standards at all. So the New England Protestants set about redesigning their Calvinist faith.” Just as the Deacon, a cleric, builds his shay. One hundred years later, the attempted reforms of Protestantism collapse, just like the shay, and “Seventh Day Adventists, Mormonism, Unitarianism and many, many other new or revitalized religions emerged from that mid-19th-century religious ‘Big Bang.'”

The one-hoss shay, however, does not gradually fall apart, as religious reforms do. On the contrary, Holmes takes pains to point out that, since every part of the shay is precisely as well-constructed as every other, the end finds

The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once, —
All at once, and nothing first, —
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

Musil says about this that “Holmes exaggerates the precision of the collapse,” but there’s more to it than that. In fact this detail is irrelevant to the tenor but indispensable to the vehicle, which is literal in this case. The poem, at the level of the vehicle, satirizes engineering. (It is quite popular with engineers, and hangs in many workshops.) Every made object has a weakest point, where it eventually breaks. Holmes’ Deacon neatly solves the problem by building each part to last exactly one hundred years. This is a superb joke on engineering but has nothing to do with Protestantism, just as the shay’s birth on the day of the Lisbon earthquake has a great deal to do with Protestantism and nothing to do with engineering. Some details work on one level and some on the other, whereas Cunningham manages his two levels seamlessly. This is one distinction between great and less great poetry.

To return for the last time to the Thomas Hardy poem, My spirit will not haunt the mound, with which I began the series: at the level of the vehicle, the poet says that he will live on only in the memories of those who cared for him in life. But at the level of the tenor, however, Hardy is addressing not his friends, but his readers. Otherwise why is he writing poetry at all? The details of where his “phantom-footed shape will go” are notably general: there are “places,” and “ways,” and that’s all. The places and ways are real, and they are imagined. They are from his life and his writing both.

Feb 252003

For 97 people to die in a nightclub fire requires heroic effort all around. There’s the band, who neglected even to get permission for a pyrotechnic display they shouldn’t be putting on in a low-ceilinged room in the first place. There are the owners, who didn’t bother to supervise the stage set. And then there are the unfortunate patrons themselves, who, being Great White fans after all, didn’t concentrate in the right tail of the distribution. When the display caught fire, most of the fans just stood and cheered; all part of the show. The place held 300 people and wasn’t filled to capacity. All four fire exits were open and clearly marked, and there were at least two minutes to find them before there was too much smoke to see. Nonetheless nearly half of the patrons managed to die, with most of the bodies found piled at the front door, where the “victims,” if that is the term, stampeded and trampled each other to death in a panic. Sometimes stupidity is criminal; sometimes it is fatal.

Feb 242003

Got my first piece today, from one mswinky@hotmail.com, who eagerly awaits offers to increase his penis size and lower his mortgage rate. Senor Swinky writes:

and what the fuck are you doing about the war or anything for that matter?
caught up in dirty identity politics and spending too much time on a 2000 dollar powerbook your parents paid for despite he fact that you’ve completed 4 years of study at a fine liberal arts college.
make furniture not fun you fool.

Six factual assertions in a single sentence, and every one wrong. Identity politics of what? Neurotic middle-aged white male Manhattan programmers? Oh yeah, we’re taking it to the street, baby! Since I make my living at the computer it’s hard for me to spend too much time there. (Waste too much time, sure: replying to this for instance.) About the only popular OS that I don’t run is Mac, and it’s been a couple of decades since I gouged my parents for anything beyond a free meal. I did not “complete” four years of study, and the liberal arts college was not fine, it was adequate.

Look boys, from now on I’m going to need some hard evidence that you actually read the site, or it’s no spam for you. I have to admit I like the furniture thing though. If I had qualified by completing four years of study at a fine liberal arts college, I might even have tried it.

Feb 242003

The unsuspecting reader who opens Emily Dickinson for the first time, in the orthodox modern version, confronts something like this:

I started Early — Took my Dog —
And visited the Sea —
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me —

And Frigates — in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands —
Presuming Me to be a Mouse —
Aground — upon the Sands —

But no Man moved Me — till the Tide —
Went past my simple Shoe —
And past my Apron — and my Belt
And past my Bodice — too —

And made as He would eat me up —
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve —
And then — I started — too —

And He — He followed — close behind —
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle — Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl —

Until We met the Solid Town —
No One He seemed to know —
And bowing — with a Mighty look —
At me — The Sea withdrew —

So what’s with the dashes and the capitalization? Nothing, basically. Dickinson’s sentence structure is not loose or complex, and the dashes can be replaced by ordinary punctuation in nearly every instance. This labor is left for the reader who wishes to make sense of the poem. Sometimes the dashes are worse than a nuisance. In the second stanza the dashes surrounding “aground” turn a restrictive clause into a non-restrictive one. The dashes surrounding “too” in the third and fourth stanzas, if read as elocution marks, spoil the rhythm of the poem.

The capitalization is similar. In this poem she mostly capitalizes her nouns and adjectives, with a few exceptions. “Me” is lower-case about half the time. “Took,” a verb, is capitalized (stanza 1), while “look,” a noun, is not (stanza 6). The organizing principle is not apparent because the organizing principle is non-existent. A reader who wishes to make sense of the fine poem that is buried underneath this detritus has to translate first, in a sense. The effort would be more profitably spent reading the poem itself. Many readers, I’m sure, are put off enough not to make the effort at all.

This mess is largely Dickinson’s fault. She notoriously failed to prepare her poems for publication, leaving them instead, hand-written, almost illegibly, in little bundles, or “fascicles” (who was it who said that sounds like Mussolini’s favorite dessert?), in many cases with several variations preserved, among which the put-upon editor is forced to choose. Take a look at this manuscript, of one of her best poems, “Safe in their alabaster chambers.”

Safe in their alabaster chambers page 1Safe in their alabaster chambers page 2

Every one of those tiny marks between words is now in the authorized version of this poem as an em-dash, and the man single-handedly responsible for this fact is Thomas W. Johnson, a former Harvard English professor. Johnson did yeoman scholarly service when he published, in 1955, a three-volume edition of Dickinson’s poems, collating all manuscripts, including all variants, and allowing, but also requiring, any sufficiently interested reader to write out the best version of a poem. In 1960, Johnson published a one-volume Complete Poems, containing what he considered to be the “definitive” versions. The dashes have been with us ever since.

Now it should be obvious that a manuscript in this state cannot be published as-is. To begin with, there are three quite different versions of the second stanza. (It might also be a three-stanza poem with two variations on the third stanza; it’s hard to tell.) For Dickinson this is not unusual. More than half of her manuscripts contain multiple versions of at least one word; many of lines, and even stanzas, like this one. There are also multiple manuscripts for quite a few poems, and of course these differ among themselves as well. They need a real editor, not a transcriber.

Johnson usually tries to solve this problem by choosing the last version, based on a dubious analysis of how Dickinson’s handwriting changed as she aged. But she left all of the versions, not just one, and it’s mind-reading to assume, with none of them crossed out, that the last is what she wanted. As Yvor Winters wrote, “The only thing one can do in a situation like this is to choose the best versions; this takes talent, and Johnson lacks talent.” Lacking talent, Johnson attempts to reduce the problem of editing Dickinson to application of mechanical criteria. His criteria always fail to produce the best version and sometimes fail to produce a version at all. This very manuscript of “Safe in their alabaster chambers” defeats him; he ends up offering two versions; he cannot choose.

In the 19th century editors used to edit, often with unfortunate results. A mid-century edition of the works of George Washington renders a small sum of money, “as but a flea-bite at present” in the original, as “totally inadequate to our demands at this time.” By comparison Emily Dickinson received very gentle treatment from her first editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece. They regularized her spelling and punctuation, showed some flair in negotiating the manuscript variants, and otherwise left her pretty much alone. In a dozen or so cases Todd substitutes words for which there is no textual warrant. (Bianchi, her successor, is clean on this score.) She notoriously changes “what a billow be” to “what a wave must be” in “I never saw a moor”; the poem is hopeless in either version. And she actually improves one of Dickinson’s greatest poems, “There’s a certain slant of light,” by changing “heft” in the first stanza to “weight.”

Later critics have jumped all over Todd for this, apparently preferring Johnson’s consistent approach, which wrecks all of the poems. But Todd and Bianchi do the hard work that Johnson leaves to the reader. This is Bianchi’s version of “I started early”:

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me,

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve —
And then I started too.

And he — he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle, — then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

Which one would you rather read?

(Update: AC Douglas comments.)

Feb 222003

Well here’s a nasty little result. It turns out that the best way to select for optimum performance from a multi-racial applicant pool is to discriminate against the low-performing groups. You need not follow the rather daunting math to follow the reasoning: the greater the difference between a score and the mean, the likelier it becomes that the score was lucky. If you adopt a single cutoff, the members of low-performing groups who are admitted have a greater differential between their scores and the mean (for their groups) than others. Therefore, their results are more likely due to chance. Therefore, you need to set a higher cutoff for the low-performing groups to compensate for this fact. And therefore people who clamor for a single cutoff for all applicants are not advocating a meritocracy, even though they think so.

(Link from Gene Expression, who else?)

Feb 212003

Reality TV these days lacks imagination. Joe Millionaire? Married by America? How about the old Monty Python skit, Blackmail? The Blackmail set consists of the host at a desk with a telephone. A crude home video rolls, with a running meter and a telephone number at the bottom of the screen. The video begins innocuously. A car drives down a street, an unidentifiable man walks into a house. Shadows appear in a bedroom window as the meter continues to run. The man and a woman begin to undress. The woman brandishes a whip. The camera zooms in…and the phone rings. It’s the poor sap calling, agreeing to pay whatever’s on the meter to stop the video.

Think about it. Zero production costs. Staff salaries partly defrayed by the swag. And who could afford not to watch?